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LAPD gang units dismantled in some high-crime areas

Officers who refuse to disclose financial status are assigned to patrol. Department downplays concerns but critics say it's risky.

February 02, 2011|By Joel Rubin and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times
  • Gang unit LAPD officers find a gun and drugs during a search of a South Los Angeles apartment. Many are reluctant to join the LAPD gang units because of in-depth financial checks that are done on the officers.
Gang unit LAPD officers find a gun and drugs during a search of a South Los… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

The Los Angeles Police Department has temporarily dismantled anti-gang units in several of its most crime-plagued neighborhoods because officers in those squads refused to comply with a controversial financial disclosure rule that they view as misguided and invasive.

Police officials have sent the defiant officers back to regular patrol duties and expect that it will take several months to rebuild the gang units with others willing to abide by the policy, which requires officers to periodically submit information regarding their assets and debts. Until then, patrol officers have been saddled with trying to keep up with gang-suppression efforts, a move some gang unit supervisors and community advocates fear could lead to an erosion of expertise and hard-fought gains in reducing gang violence and crime.

"There is definitely a concern that we might start to lose some of the ground we've gained," said Sgt. Randy Goens, a veteran gang supervisor in South Los Angeles who reluctantly plans to complete the disclosure form.

"They have an essential role," the Rev. Ben "Taco" Owens, a former gang member who is now a prominent gang interventionist, said of the gang officers. "They are familiar with the gangs. They are familiar with the community.... They won't be around. It's detrimental."

The disclosure policy is intended to help identify and deter corruption among the estimated 600 gang and narcotic officers who frequently handle cash, drugs and other contraband. Adopted nearly two years ago, the plan gave officers who were already assigned to the units until the end of March to abide by the new rules or be moved back to regular patrol assignments.

Few narcotics officers objected, but discontent among gang officers has persisted. In recent months, field commanders have grown increasingly worried that the March deadline would not leave them enough time to recruit and train new officers before the onset of summer, when gang crime traditionally spikes. Department officials required officers to declare their intentions in December and gave commanders permission to take action before the end of March.

About three-quarters of the officers agreed to the disclosures, according to LAPD estimates. There were, however, significant holdouts: All but one of the roughly 80 gang officers in the department's Southeast, 77th, Northeast and Hollenbeck divisions — areas that are home to some of the city's most violent and active gangs — refused, LAPD officials confirmed. Likewise, all members of the smaller gang teams in Van Nuys and Devonshire said they would not adhere to the policy.

"The bottom line is it isn't going to be effective and it's insulting. If we were dirty, we wouldn't be putting cash into a bank account," said a veteran gang officer who, like others, asked that his name not be used because of concern that he would be disciplined. "It's a matter of principle."

In response, the LAPD captains in charge of those six divisions disbanded the gang units and have begun rebuilding them. Instead of keeping some or all of the veteran gang officers in the units until the end of March to help train new officers, field commanders said they decided it would be better to move them out at once and as early as possible. That decision was made in part to avoid possible tensions between the outgoing and incoming officers.

Other LAPD divisions have lost some portion of their gang officers but managed to keep the units operational.

Police Chief Charlie Beck and other LAPD officials downplayed the possibility that the decision to dismantle the units could lead to a rise in gang activity. With most of the former gang officers now on patrol assignments in the same neighborhoods in which they previously worked, Beck and the others said, there would be sufficient police presence to prevent a crime surge.

"The sky is definitively not falling right now," said Southeast Division Capt. Phil Tingirides. "This will work temporarily."

Several senior LAPD officials acknowledged, however, that the decision to disband the gang units inevitably will mean a less intense focus on gang activity and expressed concern that the longer-term risks are significant. With each week that passes, they said, the department will lose ground in the effort to stay on top of the shadowy and always-shifting machinations of the city's gangs.

"It's the intelligence gathering, the intimate knowledge of who these gang members are and where they're located, the upkeep with the informants and the constant stream of information on what the gangs are up to that I'm worried about losing," said Capt. Dennis Kato, commanding officer of the 77th Area, where more than 15 major gangs are active. "We're going to be a little slower in catching up to these guys."

Vic Corella, a recently retired detective who spent years battling gangs in South Los Angeles, noted that although the LAPD keeps tabs on gangs, the gangs are keeping tabs on the LAPD and may exploit the situation.

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